The work and the legacy of Jagdish Chandra Bose cannot be categorised in any one discipline. He was a scientist, polymath, author of non-fiction, institution builder and much more. A tribute on his birth anniversary.
“In a large forest the trees shed their dry leaves one by one in profusion thus making the soil underneath fertile. In a country where there is continuous research in science, knowledge of it in fragmentary bits is being spread constantly. This is how one’s heart’s soil is quickened, becoming fertile with an alive feeling in science. It is the loss of it that has left our mind unscientific. We feel the impoverishment not only in our education, but also in the field of our occupation where we are bowed with frustration.”
The last decades of the 19th century and the early 20th century, witnessed a national awakening in India, in all spheres. In all fields- literature, arts, political thought, philosophy, India witnessed a Renaissance of sorts, when a hundred flowers bloomed, and ideas flourished. This Renaissance would lay the foundation for the Nationalist movement, that ultimately led to the freedom of India. This movement also witnessed the flourishing of scientific thought in India. Most of the Indian scientists, had to fight a twin battle, against discrimination, as well having had to put up with outdated equipment. And yet it was in such circumstances they emerged, men like C.V.Raman, S.N.Bose, Dr. Yellapragada Subbarow, Prafulla Chandra Ray, Srinivasa Ramanuja, Meghnad Saha to name a few. And in this pantheon of greats was one man who was a league unto himself, Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose, one of the greatest Indian scientists of the modern era.
To call J.C.Bose just a scientist, would however be akin to calling, Leonardo Da Vinci a mere painter, this man was a true polymath, whose genius transcended boundaries. What do you say of a man who was a physicist, biologist, and has been named by IEEE as one of the fathers of radio science. A man who was not just a scientist, who discovered that plants too could have feelings, but also wrote science fiction in Bengali. He was also an inventor, who apart from the crescograph invented many other instruments for research in physics and made significant contribution to the field of chronobiology.
Mymensingh now in Bangladesh, is located on the Brahmaputra, and is one of it’s well known educational centers now. It was in this town, that Jagadish Chandra Bose was born on Nov 30, 1858, his father Bhagawan Chandra Bose was a Brahmo by belief, and worked as the Deputy Magistrate of Faridpur and other places. By nature a man with a heart of gold, Bhagawan Chandra helped out villagers from his own money during the 1880 famine in Bengal. Though born in Mymensingh, Jagadish grew up primarily in Faridpur, where his father was stationed. Contrary to the then established practice of sending people to a convent school, his father sent him to a vernacular school. Studying with people lower down the class order than him, and making friends with them, got Jagadish a much broader perspective on life. In his own words:
In the vernacular school, to which I was sent, the son of the Muslim attendant of my father sat on my right side, and the son of a fisherman sat on my left. They were my playmates. I listened spellbound to their stories of birds, animals and aquatic creatures.
He mingled with the poorer boys, swam rivers, learnt about nature from them, which he credited a lot later for his thought process too. Most of his classmates were sons of farmers and fishermen, and from them he learnt about the rather tough life they lived. And also the techniques they used for catching fish or growing crops. He had an insatiable curiosity for life and all that around him. What is, a glow-warm? Is it fire or spark? Why does the wind blow? Why does the water flow? – The questions just kept coming in one by one. Growing up amidst the fields, lakes and rivers of rural Bengal, imbibed in him a love for nature as well a curiosity about it.
Bose was also inspired by his father, who undertook many scientific projects, and was also a nationalist and humanist. No better example of his humanism, than the fact that one of his servants, whom he appointed to look after Bose, was a dreaded ex dacoit whom he personally captured. He undertook many projects that would provide employment to the poorer people in the areas he worked. As Assistant Commissioner of Burdwan, he opened workshops in carpentry, a foundry. He narrated stories from the Ramayan and Mahabharat to Bose, who was pretty much influenced by the character of Karna. Growing up in the company of boys less fortunate than him, made him more tolerant, and never differentiated between the rich and poor. In his own words:
To me his life has been one of blessing, and daily thanksgiving. Nevertheless everyone had said that he had wrecked his life, which was meant for greater things. Few realize that out of the skeletons of myriad lives have been built vast continents. And it is on the wreck of a life like his, and of many such lives, that will be built the the greater India yet to be. We do not know why it should be so;; but we do know that the Earth-Mother is always calling for sacrifice.
Bose often saw himself in Karna, the outsider who came from nowhere and challenged the hierarchy, overcoming his own disadvantage. And at the age of 9, he was in a somewhat similar situation, when he was admitted to the prestigious St.Xaviers School in Kolkata. Coming from a vernacular background, he had to face a class full of English speaking guys, who often teased him about it, and provoked him too at times. With not much friends there to speak, he spent his time in solitude, and this is where he developed his skills of observation and scientific temperament. Being intelligent he was a favorite of his teachers and passed most examinations with distinction. One of the biggest influences on his life was Father Eugene Lafont, a Belgian Jesuit, who was known for his vast knowledge in science. Being mentored and tutored by Lafont, helped Bose to hone his intellectual skills even more, and also develop an interest in Physics.
Having graduated in BA( Physical Sciences) from Kolkata University, Bose was not exactly sure of his future.
However considering the financial difficulties his father was facing then, Bose decided to appear for the Indian Civil Services exam. His father though was against it, saying that as a Civil Servant, he would be cut off from the common people, and he wanted him to study something that could be of use to them. His parents decided that it would be better for him to study Medicine abroad in England, and his mother pawned her jewelry to raise money for it. And soon he sailed for England, to study medicine. However Bose could not cope with the rigors of the course, and had to quit because of ill health. In 1882, he enrolled in Cambridge for a course in Natural Sciences, in the Christ College there. The fact that his brother in law Anandamohan Bose studied there, earlier was also a factor. Being the brilliant student that he was he soon received the Natural Science Tripos at Cambridge, and was also fortunate to have the guidance of such scientists like Lord Raleigh, James Dewar, Francis Balfour. He also married the well known feminist and social worker Abala Bose.
Coming back to India, Bose joined Presidency College, Kolkata, and it was there he came face to face with the discrimination Indians suffered. The Indian teachers there were paid 1/3rd of what the British teachers got. When he was appointed as Physics professor, it was opposed by Britishers like Charles Tawney, the principal of Presidency. Fortunately there were others like the then viceroy Lord Ripon, and Professor Fawcett, economist who knew Bose well, who backed him. Even then Bose was only paid 1/2 of what Britishers were paid, and he also was not given the proper facilities for research, and he had to improvise his own equipment. He got over this by creating a makeshift laboratory at home, and would pursue his research after college. Most of his salary went into his laboratory, and equipment, and he lived rather frugally. His research was conducted in a small 24 square feet room, in Presidency, with some rather rudimentary equipment.
James Maxwell was the one to formulate the theory of electromagnetic radiation, however he could not verify it experimentally. German physicist Heinrich Hertz, conducted a series of experiments between 1886 and 1888, that showed existence of electromagnetic waves in free space. Bose had read Oliver Lodge’s book on Hertz’s experiments and was motivated to study more on electric waves. Realizing the disadvantages associated with long waves, Bose first reduced them to mm level around 5mm wavelength. In Nov 1894, Bose for the first time gave a demonstration of microwaves at the Kolkata Town Hall, where by he ignited gunpowder and rang a bell at a distance of using the microwaves. Bose also developed an improved “Coherer” over the previous ones by Eduard Branly and Oliver Lodge, and used that to demonstrate various aspects of radio waves. In 1895 he published his findings in “On the polarisation of Electric Rays by Double Reflecting Crystals” at the Asiatic Society of Bengal, his first research paper. Within a year in 1896, one of his other papers “On the Determination of the Indices of Refraction of Sulphur for the Electric Ray” was published by Royal Society of London, and it was probably the first time, papers by an Indian were published in a Western scientific periodical. The scientific community now sat up and took notice of him, he was given the Doctor of Science degree, the British Govt came forward to help him monetarily. In a sense Bose shattered the myth that only the West was good at science, while Indians were fit only for religious and spiritual studies. Lord Kelvin congratulated him on his success, the renowned papers like Times, Spectator were all praise. The fact that Bose managed to achieve so much with pretty rudimentary equipment, and in the face of discrimination, made his achievement, that much more remarkable.
Should Professor Bose succeed in perfecting and patenting his ‘Coherer’, we may in time see the whole system of coast lighting throughout the navigable world revolutionised by a Bengali scientist working single handed in our Presidency College Laboratory.- The Electrician, Dec 1895.
One thing that needs to be understood, is that Bose was primarily seeking to study the nature of radio microwave optics, he was not really keen on the radio. He had met Marconi in 1896, who was at the same time working on the wireless, and seeking to market it commercially. Bose was not interested in the commercial aspect, and opened his research work for all to use. In spite of that his contribution to the field of radio science was very significant, where he would rank as one of the pioneers. He was the first to use a semiconductor junction to detect radio waves, and this was an influence on Pearson and Brattain in 1954, when they were doing their work on semiconductors. Sir Nevil Mott, Noble Laureate remarked that “J.C.Bose was at least 60 years ahead of his time, had anticipated the existence of N and P type semiconductors much before than any one”.
By now Bose fame had spread all over the world, he was giving lectures in France, Germany, US, Japan, where he explained the significance of his discoveries. Many English scientists came forward now to improve the conditions under which he was working. Lord Kelvin wrote a letter to the then Secretary of State, George Hamilton, asking for assistance to Bose in setting up a proper laboratory with all the equipment needed in Kolkata. Many other scientists too like Prof Fitzerland, Sir William Ramsay, Sir George Gabriel Stokes too pitched in, requesting for all the assistance that had to be given to him. The then Viceroy Lord Elgin, though showing interest in the project, felt it was not a priority, and the lab ultimately was opened in 1914, just a year before Bose retired.
One aspect which Bose was pretty much against, was patenting his inventions. In a sense he never saw science as a means of monetary benefit, for him it was used to benefit mankind. He could easily have had made a fortune just by patenting his inventions, but he was never really interested in it. This is the reason, why Marconi gets the credit for radio, though it was Bose who actually first demonstrated it’s practical application. He openly laid out the design for his coherer for others to adopt, and refused to take any patent for it. Even when he was offered money for his inventions, he refused to take it. One of his admirers, Sara Bull, filed a patent for the galena receiver by Bose. But he showed no interest and it lapsed. His philosophy was simple, knowledge was not any one’s personal property, and any could use the fruits of his work.
In the meantime Bose conducted his research at the Davy-Faraday Research Institute in England, where he would do his path breaking work on the discovery of plant stimuli. His work on plants was actually motivated by his observations of the behavior of his electric wave receiver, which showed signs of “fatigue” after prolonged use, but could be revived back to it’s original sensitivity after a period of rest. Bose began to believe that even metals too had feelings, and soon turned his attention to plants. If animals and human could respond to outside stimuli, could not plants also do the same, he wondered. And that led to his landmark research on plant behavior and stimuli, where he first conducted his experiment with a leaf, a carrot and a turnip he bought from his garden. He began to work more extensively on this and in 1900 he bought out his paper “On the Similarity Responses of Inorganic and Living Matter” at the Paris International Conference, where he compared the responses of living tissues with inorganic matter. In a sense Bose was giving a more scientific touch to the age old Eastern philosophy of the basic unity of all living beings. Swami Vivekananda who was in Paris, then, went to hear Bose at the Congress, and praised him highly for his work. Rabindranath Tagore appreciated Bose work in the form of a poem.
His major contribution to the field of biophysics, was his demonstration of the electrical nature of stimuli in plants, to say wounds or chemical agents, which till then was assumed to be chemical in nature. He was one of the first to study action of microwaves in plant tissues, changes in the cell membrane. He also did pioneering research work in the seasonal effect mechanism on plants, effect of temperature and comparative study of fatigue response in metals as well as plants. He documented a characteristic electrical response curve of plants to stimuli as well as a near absence of response in plants treated with poison or anesthetic.
In 1902, Bose came back to Kolkata where he continued his work on the physiological properties of plant tissues and showcased his investigation in the form of monographs. One of his most significant inventions was the Crescograph, an instrument that could measure the growth of a plant, as small as 1/100,000 inch per second. His pioneering work on plant stimuli would be the basis for many fields like physiology, chronobiology and cybernetics.
In 1915, Bose retired as Professor of Physics, he had actually got a 2 year extension in recognition of his services. Even after retirement, the Govt made him as Professor Emeritus on full pay, instead of giving him pension as per the standard practice. Bose did not give up on his research work even after retirement and kept working on it till the end of his life. Having experienced the struggle of doing research without proper equipment, Bose came up with the idea of a full fledged research institute, and laboratory for aspiring scientists. He began to collect funds for this very purpose, and finally on Nov 23, 1917, his dream came true, when the Bose Research Institute was opened in Kolkata. He was greatly helped in his endeavor by Rabindranath Tagore, who contribute financially, and also backed him in his efforts. In the inaugural speech he spelt out his vision clearly:
I dedicate to-day this Institute – not merely a Laboratory but a Temple…The advance of science is the principal object of this Institute and also diffusion of knowledge. We are here in the largest of all the many chambers of this House of Knowledge – its Lecture Room. In adding this feature, and on a scale hitherto unusual in a Research Institute, I have sought permanently to associate the advancement of knowledge with the widest possible civic and public diffusion of it;; and this without any academic limitations, henceforth to all races and languages, to both men and women alike, and for all time coming.
For Bose the institute would be a center for advancing original thought, where people would research and discover, and then share their knowledge for the betterment of mankind. He made an appeal to the ancient temples of learning, at Taxila and Nalanda that in their heydays attracted scholars from all over the world. It was significant that the thunderbolt fashioned out of Rishi Dadichi’s bones would be it’s symbol. In a sense Bose was a modern day Dadichi, who gave away everything, without expecting anything in return.
Jagdish Chandra Bose was however more than a mere scientist, he was also a writer, an author, a polymath, a connoisseur of fine arts. He was a writer of science fiction too, and has often been called the father of Bengali Science Fiction. He wrote Niruddesher Kahani in 1896, a very famous short story and his Palatak Toophan was one of the first works in Bengali science fiction. A close friend to Rabindranath Tagore, he would spend many evenings with him, listening to his stories and plays, the latter on the other hand, was one of his greatest admirers, supported him in many ways. In the history of science, Bose has been credited with invention of wireless detection device as well as a pioneer in the field of biophysics. His work on the millimetre band radio has been recognized by IEEE as a milestone in the field of Electrical Engineering, the first time an Indian has got that honor. Today Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose is no longer around us, physically, but his legacy shall endure forever.
This piece was first published on the blog ‘History Under Your Feet‘ and has been republished here with permission.
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